80 Years of Personal Memories
By Mark Sternheimer
In 1937 I was living in an apartment on Monument Avenue about 1 block from the Boulevard in Richmond Virginia. One day as I was looking out the window I noticed a big tall blonde young man running from an apartment next door, across Monument Avenue trying to dodge horse drawn wagons pulling produce sold by farmers, crossing into the grass plot in the middle of Monument Avenue with a great big gas model airplane under one arm. I watched while he glided the aircraft several times to see how it flew and after adjusting it he went back to his apartment. The next day when he did the same thing, I asked him what he was doing and although I was 7 years old and he was 13, he took time to explain to me that he was adjusting it so that it could be flown in a model meet. I’m sure at that time I was more of a pain in the neck than anything else because of the age difference but it was in the middle of the depression and there were very few cars on Monument Avenue at that time and those that were, drove very slowly. I told Neil that I was interested in model building but my extent was Strombecker models that were solid wood and I had never tried to build a flying model. Neil then gave me a Megow balsa wood kit that cost about 25¢ but it was much beyond my ability as most of the parts were printed out on balsa sheets and had to be cut out.
One day Neil moved away without saying anything, and I lost track of him completely. I was going to Lee School at the time which was about 10 blocks from my apartment. I found out that there was a garage owned by Eddie Galeski where model supplies were bought and sold as there were no stores that sold these items. Eddie was one of Neil’s friends and this garage was about a block away from Lee School so I took a long way home on many an occasion to see what was going on but again the age difference was too great between me and the other fellas for them to pay much attention to me. I found out later during those years Neil was working as a line boy at Hermitage Airport and along with his friends Abe Hertzberg, Ed Galeski and Walter Jeffries all were learning to solo about the same time and all had received their pilots licenses by the time they were 16 years old. One of the more prominent fliers based at Hermitage was Martha West who owned a Fairchild 24. One day she took off and had engine failure shortly after takeoff. Neil had watched and saw that she was going to land several blocks away at the Methodist Orphanage on Broad Street. He jumped on his bike and got over there quickly which enabled him to pull Mrs. West out of the airplane before it caught on fire. Mrs. West never forgot this event and many years later made a donation in her will to the Science Museum of over $1 million to take care of the airplanes that we had accumulated from the Shannon Collection.
Of those young teenagers working at Hermitage along with Neil several went on to great careers. Abe Hertzberg went to Cornell University where he graduated with a Doctorate Degree in aeronautical engineering. He became a flight test engineer during WWII and later was head of the aeronautics research department and professor at the University of Washington. He held 21 patents over the years, and worked on atomic fusion and supersonic flight after WWII. Eddie Galeski got an aeronautical engineering degree from MIT and during WWII was a flight test pilot for the B29 and wrote the pilots handbook for that aircraft. Later in life he owned Fox Photo which was a large company in Richmond dedicated to photography. Jeffries was a fantastic artist and went to California where he became the artist who designed the Starship Enterprise for the Star Trek TV show and Movies. He also was the chief art director for more than a dozen movies in Hollywood and during WWII he flew in a B17 Bomber on several secret missions over Europe. He donated his beautifully restored WACO YOC Biplane to the VAHS which still owns it.
In early 1941 we moved to a house near the end of Monument Avenue. One day I was surprised to see Neil again testing his models about a block west of where I was living. I was delighted to see him and we renewed our old friendship and now that I was 11, I was more able to communicate with him on terms that he understood. Later that summer of 1941 Neil took a job as a counselor at Camp Sagamore which was a boy’s camp on Lake George New York. He graduated from high school and was now a freshman at Washington and Lee University. I remember him coming to my house and telling my mother that he would like to take me up to Camp Sagamore and promised to make sure that I didn’t get into too much trouble. In those days polio was a big problem for young kids and it seemed to be predominantly in the south so whenever possible families tried to get their kids out of Richmond and into northern climates in the summer time to prevent them catching polio. So my folks gave permission for him to take me to camp. I remember taking the overnight train to New York. The next day we went to see a baseball game played at the Polo Grounds. I remember Mel Ott who was a fantastic hitter for the New York Giants playing in that game and I had never seen a professional baseball game before, but it was a great event. Later that day we took a train to Lake George and wound up at a small boat landing called Hague. Camp Sagamore was a rustic camp located on the eastern side of Lake George on the side of a mountain where it had been cut away to allow for a boy’s camp. There were no roads leading to the camp so the only way to get there was by boat crossing the lake. Lake George was several miles wide but about 30 miles long. On one occasion I remember taking a canoe trip with Neil that lasted about 5 or 6 days. Each day as we paddled down the lake we stopped at an island to spend the night in tents as there were numerous public islands that dotted the lake. Neil was a good teacher and taught us how to set the tents up, take care of a sleeping bag and even when it was raining how to protect ourselves.
We returned to Richmond at the end of August 1941 and a week or so later Neil told me that there was a flying meet for model aircraft at the new Westview Airport which had been constructed by Matt Will a local builder. The airport had just been finished and as a result there were many ditches and potholes in the runway. Neil and his friends had stayed out late the night before the meet and I watched them assemble an aircraft from parts that they had from previous aircraft. They were missing a fuselage so Neil designed one and built it in the wee hours of the morning before the meet. It was a simple box construction which enabled him to put it together very quickly. The contest was divided up into classes of aircraft depending on the size of the gasoline engine. Neil’s aircraft was in class B and I was elected to be the chaser. The rules of the contest were that the aircraft would fly on a timer for 30 seconds and after the engine cut off, the length of time the aircraft stayed in the air would determine points that eventually would determine the winner. On the first flight Neil’s aircraft took off and flew to a substantial height and when the engine cut off I was told to go get the aircraft. I guess that the aircraft was probably 300 or 400 yards away so I ran quickly to where it had landed, grabbed it up in my arms and carefully tried to walk back to Neil. I was more interested in the aircraft than I was in watching where I was going, so all of a sudden I fell into a ditch and my arm came crashing through the fuselage breaking it in half. As I walked back to Neil I was sure that I would receive a real lashing but that was not the case. When Neil surveyed the damage he said, “look Mark, there’s a fella at the meet who knows how to repair aircraft quickly so don’t worry about it.” Sure enough Neil took the aircraft over to the repair fella and by reinforcing the fuselage he was able to get it back in flying condition within about 20 minutes. I’m not sure if Neil won any prizes at that meet but at least he was able to compete until the end.
Because of WWII and other events, I did not see Neil again for 15 years. WWII started in December 1941 and Neil enlisted in the Navy hoping to be a pilot. When he went into service he gave me the model that he had flown at Westview Airport and another model which he had built while at college which was a very detailed model of a Hudson Bomber, both of which I still have. Neil had hoped to be a Navy pilot but wound up as the executive officer aboard the Attack Transport APA-179 USS Lauderdale. He served in the South Pacific in the battle of Okinawa and was attacked by Kamikaze aircraft on several occasions. Neil returned to Richmond in 1946 about the same time that I was going to the University of Virginia. When I was 18 I joined the Marine Reserve hoping to be a Marine pilot. When I graduated from UVA in 1950 the Korean War started several weeks later and I was called to active duty. I was sent to the Marine Corps Schools at Quantico and became part of the 1st Special Basic Class and learned quickly that they didn’t have time to teach me how to fly. In September 1951 I was flown over to Korea to join the 5th Marine Regiment at the Punchbowl as a communications officer. After 9 months in Korea I was rotated back to the states in May 1952 and shortly after that I got married and moved to Washington so I never had time to renew my friendship with Neil until years later.
I took a job in Washington with the Erco Corporation and helped design the P2V-5 electronic flight simulator which was the first operational flight trainer that the Navy had ever used. After returning to Richmond in 1955 I had a Luscombe II A Sedan which I based at Central Airport. Central closed in 1956 to make way for a housing development so I moved my Luscombe over to Northfield where Neil kept a Tripacer he had nicknamed Teddy Belle that he had bought with Ed Galeski. I asked an old friend of Neil’s, Mort, who was a Navy Corsair pilot during WWII what it was like to fly with Neil after WWII. He told me of a trip that they took in his PT-19 around 1946 or 1947 that started following the James River at about 50 feet altitude east of Richmond along the river until they got to the Curles Neck Farm. Curles Neck Farm had been an open area where aircraft meets had been held prior to WWII. Mort said that they buzzed the field a couple of times to make sure that there were no cows in the way and finally made a landing that was very close to the edge of the strip. After making sure there were no cows in the way they pushed the aircraft to a fence at the end of the farm and took off barely clearing a fence at the other end because the engine did not seem to be putting out full power. Mort said he flew with Neil a couple of times but that was the one he remembered the most. During that period Neil had taken a job as a production manager at the Friedman Marks Clothing Company where his Dad was a part owner. Friedman Marks was known for making inexpensive (Rockingham) men’s suits and had a production line that was very efficient.
Years later I went to visit Neil on a number of occasions. In order to have good employee relations, Neil had in their factory the very best lunch in Richmond. It had been set up for the employees and was noted for its excellent homemade food, cafeteria style that was offered free to every employee during the lunch break. Neil showed me how suits were made and I was amazed to see a large stack of cloth that was cut out for sleeves travel around the production line finally winding up as a fully made sleeve even though all of the pieces were different colors and I wondered how they could all match together but Neil was a master tactician and designed the production line to be very efficient. The fame of the factory spread to Japan where they were asked to come over and set up a factory in Japan using the latest production methods. Neil told me that everything went great except when they started using American patterns none of those patterns worked for Japanese men because they were much smaller in stature, so all the patterns had to be redone.
In the early 1960’s I owned a Light Twin and suggested to Neil that it might be fun to take day trips together since the Tripacer that he had really wasn’t big enough for a long trip. I remember several trips that we made together. One trip in particular was to see a football game in North Carolina. As soon as we landed, Neil wanted to know when we were leaving. Neil’s only interest in going on one of these trips was the flying part. He had no interest in the destination as I quickly found out so we didn’t take too many trips together after that.
Neil bought a lot on the south side of the James River which had a magnificent view of a famous railroad bridge as well as the James River rapids. Carl Lindner, one of Neil’s friends and a WWII C47 pilot who dropped paratroopers behind the German lines on D-Day, was the architect. It was a very modernistic house with extraordinary views of the James River. Neil had a fully equipped woodworking shop in the garage as he liked to turn out wooden walnut bowls on his lathe which had extremely thin walls and if you picked up one of the bowls on its side it would crack. He gave the bowls to his friends and they were all collected together for a display at a local museum during that period. Neil built a train set that was mounted next to the ceiling and as the trains ran around the track his two sons could see them but not get their hands on them. This enabled him to have the train set up for the entire year.
Neil eventually moved the Friedman Marks Clothing Company to a site that he developed on Laburnum Avenue known as the Laburnum Industrial Park. Neil designed the building for the manufacture of clothing and when you walked in you noticed that all of the lights were set at a 45° angle to the walls of the building, as well as the manufacturing tables. Neil had figured out a way to increase production by using a different flow method in the way the suits would be sent around the factory to different stations and it became known as a very efficient way of manufacturing. So much so that years later when the company was bought by Rapid America Co. they adapted the new manufacturing techniques to their own company.
In 1977 Neil organized The Golden Wings Over Richmond as a salute to Byrd Airport which was then 50 years old. They had over 60 different aircraft on display as well as a Concord supersonic jet that flew over from Europe. During that period Neil also became chairman of the Capitol Regional Airport Commission known as CRAC. When he learned that the Shannon collection was available in 1985 and could be moved to Richmond he negotiated a lease with him as chairman of CRAC as well as being the president of the Virginia Aviation Historic Society. As a result with him being on both sides of the negotiation he was able to negotiate a long term lease for $1 a year so that the Virginia Air Museum could be constructed. He personally raised over $400,000 for the new museum. Carl Lindner designed the new museum.
From King to Villain in One Day
The Ethyl Corporation was a major contributor to the VAM. The Ethyl Corporation had been a major producer of tetraethyl lead which was used in gasoline to prevent engines from knocking, which was a common occurrence for gasoline during the ‘20’s, ‘30’s and ‘40’s. Using tetraethyl lead or ethyl gasoline cured the knock problem. It was also one of the reasons we were able to have 115-130 octane gasoline during WWII while the Germans were limited to only 87 octane gasoline. As a result our engines were more powerful and lighter than the German engines which because of the lower octane had to be larger and heavier than our engines to reach the same power levels. The word Ethyl was prominently displayed on all gas pumps as well as aircraft cowlings, especially those with radial engines. It was very prominent during all of the air races during the ‘30’s and into the ‘40’s when round reciprocating engines were being used. One day Neil received a call from the Ethyl Corporation saying that they had been prohibited by the government from putting leaded gasoline on the market and wanted to discontinue the use of the word Ethyl immediately. As a consequence, all of the Ethyl logos on all of the engines that were at the museum were painted over so that the word Ethyl became a word that was not used anymore. The company even changed their name to Dominion Resources and discontinued the word Ethyl in all of their advertisements. Ethyl was an old time Richmond corporation so it hit them in a difficult way.
Neil prided himself on his flying ability and especially so when he had to fly through bad weather. Although on a few occasions I think he decided flying a single engine airplane was not a good idea when you had to fly through bad weather. Eventually he got a Twin Comanche which he owned with Eddie Galeski. He also flew as copilot with his friend Ken Rowe who was a B24 bomber pilot during WWII as well as a member of the VAHS. Ken flew as Governor Balile’s pilot in the State of Virginia King Air and Neil often flew as Balile’s co-pilot during the period of 1986 – 1990.
The SR-71 Story
In 1989, the Air Force decided to dispense with its fleet of SR-71 Blackbird Strategic Reconnaissance aircraft. Neil thought that if we could get one for the VAM it would really put us on the map. I got in touch with Senator John Warner, an old friend from my Marine Corps Days for help. After several months of trying, Warner told us that our museum was too small and unimportant to warrant an SR-71. We later also spoke to Walter Witschey who was the Director of the SMV and they promised to pay for the costs to get an SR-71 to Richmond.
Congress had decided to keep 4 SR-71 aircraft in reserve in case we had to go to war but in 1999 those 4 aircraft became available for museums. One day at noon, Mike Boehme, our VAM museum director and former Air Force F-15 pilot got a call from one of his Air Force friends in California, that if we could come up with $100,000 in 2 hours, they would hold one of the SR-71’s for us. That was the cost to take it apart, ship it to Richmond and put it back together again. Mike called me and I called Neil. There was no time to call a meeting, and Walter Witschey said that the SMV would no longer pay for the transportation as the SMV was then involved with Genome Biology and not interested in the SR-71 technology. Neil and I quickly decided to borrow the $100,000 in our personal names and I called Mike about an hour later. Mike called his Air Force friends and then let us know that the SR-71 was ours. A few weeks later we were able to get a matching contribution from the Mary Morton Parsons Foundation for $50,000, so Neil and I only had to borrow $50,000.
Later David Hahn went to California to supervise the move of the SR-71 to Richmond. When the SR-71 was put on display at the VAM, I don’t think I have ever seen Neil so happy!!! The SR-71 is now hanging in the SMV as its featured display.
Neil was a great speaker and made all of the Hall of Fame presentations after we moved to the VAM in 1985.Neil loved to give personal tours at the Virginia Air Museum with the history of each aircraft as he went through on the tour. A video was made of that presentation and I hope someday it can be put on YouTube as we still have a copy. During the last 15 years or so, Neil formed a group called the Secret 7. It was neither 7 people nor was it secret but we used to get together for lunch every week and talk about old times and keep up with each other. Neil was able to keep up with these weekly get-togethers up through last December but his health deteriorated rapidly after that time. Over the years I think Neil was many things to different people but I think his first love in life (outside of his wife) was Flying and Airplanes and that was the passion he enjoyed up until the very end.